Why our conventional understanding of forgiveness is failing us.
Our culture is obsessed with forgiveness. In spiritual communities the word is tossed around like croutons in a salad. “You must forgive the person who hurt you.” “Forgive her for yourself- you can’t heal without it.” There are even oracle cards labeled “forgiveness”. One from Angel Answers by Doreen Virtue and Radleigh Valentine reads:
“Forgiveness can work miracles. When you release the past, a weight is lifted from your shoulders, and a sense of freedom washes over you… let go of sadness or pain caused by others so that you can be free”
Indeed forgiveness CAN work miracles- but not in the way we understand it.
Here is how the word is meant to be understood according to Merriam Webster:
To Forgive: To cease to feel resentment or vengeful feelings; to give up resentment, or claim to requital.
So far so good, right? Even the dictionary defines forgiveness as something you do for yourself. The problem comes when we look at the synonyms for forgiveness:
to pardon (give no penalty); to condone (allow).
What were some of your earliest lessons in forgiveness? I mean, when you were a little kid- how were you socialized to understand what it means to forgive? I imagine the following situation on a pre-k playground:
Sam: Frank hit me!
Teacher: Frank, did you hit Sam?
Teacher: Frank, apologize to Sam.
Frank: Sorry Sam.
Sam: It’s okay Frank.
How many of us had similar situations as children? How many of us have similar situations as adults? How many of us actually never get apologies as adults but are expected to behave like Sam anyway? “Forgive your abuser to set yourself free” “Forgive yourself for the bad things you’ve done” “Your boss screwed you over- forgive him.” Forgive, forgive, forgive. What must Sam think? Frank walks away while Sam still feels the sting of the slap. Sam wonders why she was hit. Sam feels sad, angry even. Sam has not actually forgiven Frank, she merely pardoned him. You see, Sam, like many of us, has been taught to pardon (and sometimes condone) rather than to forgive. Sam has also been taught to ignore her feelings of anger and simply let the issue go. It is almost as if the word has been given a new implicit meaning to fit the agenda of the perpetrator.
The truth is, real forgiveness does not require pardoning- and certainly never condoning. Sam can be angry. Sam can confront Frank if she feels comfortable doing so. Sam should do what makes her feel most at peace. Forcing pardoning (disguised as forgiveness) is a superficial solution that can cause more trauma to the victim through emotional suppression and invalidation, condone bad behavior, and never allowing the victim to search for alternative means of gaining closure (sometimes we will just never get an apology and we need to find ways to be accepting of that).
In part two, I address a surprisingly common omission that converts apologies into manipulative strategies to silence us.